Historically, many players want no part of playing in Winnipeg due in large part to its frigid winter temperatures. Drew Stafford is not one of those players.
Stafford had wanted to return to the Winnipeg Jets ever since the club was swept by the Anaheim Ducks in their first-round playoff series this past April. He got his wish, foregoing unrestricted free agency and signing a two-year contract with the club that will pay him an average of $4.35 million per campaign.
“It was an option from Day One when I arrived,” Stafford told the team’s website. “I had such a great experience there with all the guys and playing under Paul (Maurice) and the rest of the coaching staff, and the way I was treated by (executive chairman Mark) Chipman and (general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff). It was one of those things where I got the offer and I was extremely excited.”
Selected by Buffalo with the 13th overall pick in the 2004 draft, Stafford spent the first 8 1/2 seasons of his NHL career with the Sabres. His time in upstate New York came to an end on February 11, when a blockbuster trade landed him in Manitoba.
Stafford was part of a package that included defenseman Tyler Myers, two prospects and a first-round draft pick that was sent to the Jets for Evander Kane, blue-liner Zach Bogosian and the rights to a young goaltender. The 29-year-old had recorded nine goals and 15 assists in 50 games with the Sabres at the time of the deal and went on to net nine more tallies and set up 10 others in 26 contests with Winnipeg.
He added a goal and an assist in the postseason, his first since 2010-11 due to the woefulness of the Sabres. Stafford was so intent on returning to the Jets, he wasn’t interested in listening to contract offers from other clubs.
“I’m making close to what I had been making,” Stafford said. “I’m all for the challenge of raising my game. I feel like I’ve got a lot left to prove. I felt when I got to Winnipeg, I was able to get my game back and at least start moving the needle toward the positive side.”
A native of Milwaukee, Stafford has yet to come close to matching his career-high mark of 31 goals, which he set in 2010-11. He scored 20 the following season but has fallen short of that plateau each of the last three campaigns, although he hopes to raise his game in 2015-16.
“The league is getting younger and younger every year,” Stafford said. “It’s just the way it’s going. It’s getting faster and faster. It looks like teams are focusing more on the speed element of the game. For myself, that’s one of my focuses this summer.”
A nine-year veteran, Stafford has been to the postseason only four times in his career. The trip he made after being traded to Winnipeg left him hungry for more.
“I’m focused on coming in here and continuing to get better, and improve on what I showed when I came in, especially just making the playoffs again too,” he said. “I think we have the type of team that can make some damage.”